Monday, 20 December 2010

Y is for Yarn

Y is for Yarn

An older woman visited my shop recently and expressed derision at my choice of language. "Yarn?!" she spat, "What an American expression. It's wool, surely?"
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And therein lies the rub. Most "wool" has absolutely zero sheep-related ingredients these days and hence 'Yarn' has become the more socially accepted reference term as well as being more agreeable under the trade descriptions act!

Although I have been a knitter for over twenty years, it was only when I started knitting for my son - and buying my own yarn rather than relying on my Nana's SABLE (Stash amassed beyond life expectancy) - that I discovered I was in fact knitting with 100% plastic. Not exactly what I wanted to wrap my precious newborn baby in, but I had no idea what the alternatives were or how they'd work. So here, I am going to share with you just a smattering of the information I've picked up over the years.


I frequently have customers in my shop who gravitate towards yarn they like and then ask, "What can I do with this?" and the best tool you can arm yourself with is the knowledge of what different weights (or thickness) of yarn you can get. I have tried to use the most common UK terms, but please me aware that the USA terminology is different and can be confusing.

Laceweight/2-ply - This is generally the lightest, thinnest yarn that you can get. I mostly see it used for shawls and scarflets.
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Sockweight/4-ply - Approximately 50% thicker than laceweight, 4-ply used to be the weight most commonly used for baby items. Nowadays, I mostly sell sock yarn at 4-ply weight.

Double knit/DK - This is a nice balanced midweight yarn. Thick enough for you to have quick results but thin enough to show detail.

Aran - Known of course for big sweaters with lots of cables and intricate detailing, aran is a fairly heavy yarn which knits up quickly creating a warm, thick fabric.. This is the weight of yarn that I recommend to beginners as there is an element of achievement with only a few rows.

Chunky - Thick yarn, knits up very quickly creating a thick but somewhat unwieldy fabric.

Super chunky - The yarn for lazy people! I jest, but this is pretty much the heaviest weight of yarn that I have ever come across. As with chunky, it works up very quickly but creates a very thick and unwieldy fabric.


Most commonly, yarn is sold in approx 25g, 50g or 100g balls. I say approx, as in actual fact most commercially available yarns are measured in meterage which is more accurate. Remember that the meterage in a 50g laceweight yarn will be vastly different to the meterage in a 50g chunky yarn!


Generally speaking Yarn can be divided into two sub-groups, those being natural or synthetic, but it is common to see either group diluted with a percentage of the other. For example, most sock yarns will have somewhere in the region of 25% nylon to give the yarn flexibility and stability when it is being worn.

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Natural fibres can again be broken down into animal fibres and vegetable fibres. The most common of the animal fibres is the ubiquitous wool, but other common animal fibres include alpaca, mohair and silk. In these modern times with knitting & crochet becoming far more mainstream, many new animal fibres are coming out including qiviut (from the adult muskox) and even possum which is promoted as ecologically friendly since possums are considered pests. The best known vegetable fibre is of course cotton, but again new yarns are being created from weird and wonderful sources including the renewable resource bamboo and the hippy's favourite hemp. Although this is not a universal rule, vegetable fibres tend not to stretch much and can create stress on the hands.

I hope this guide has been moderately helpful if somewhat info heavy! If you're a knitter or crocheter, I would highly recommend that you check out these websites as fantastic resources.
Ravelry - Just the best thing to ever happen to knitters & crocheters

Yarndex - A great website to compare yarn brands to substitute in patterns

This post has been written by Vonnie of The Life Craft.  The Life Craft have both an online store and bricks and motor shop offering a range of  sewing and knitting supplies as well as classes. Visit their site here:


JuliaB said...

Interesting article .. i am intregued by the 100% plastic - is that 'acrylic' yarn? And alarmed by the possum yarn .. do the possum's die????

Vonnie said...

Hi Julia!

Yes, the '100% plastic' I was referring to is indeed acrylic yarn. I do appreciate that it has it's place, but for me I felt cheated as I understood it to be wool since that is how it was referred to by both my wee knitting Nana and by the owner of the local yarn shop.

I can only speak for one brand of possum yarn, but Jamie Possum recover the possum fur from animals which have been culled in New Zealand as part of the NZ governments attempts to control the highly destructive possum population. I do appreciate that this can be hard to come to terms with, but their ecological argument is very powerful and I'd encourage anyone with doubts or concerns to read both sides of the argument on possum fur & yarn.

Tracey said...

Good article! I have dabbled with knitting but not with any great success. I have knitted with felting wool and made a bag for myself though and loved the whole process. The oversize bag knitted up really quickly too! Watching it shrink in the wash was amazing too.

Similar new fibres, bamboo, hemp, soy and odd animal fleeces are being used in quilt battings too ( .. or waddings if your want to be English! Hahaha ! )

Merry Christmas!

Catherine said...

I say yarn too! There are some words that have become generic - like biro and I still talk about hoovering the sittingroom even now I have a Dyson! But I think it is so much clearer - after all as you say we do not just have the choice of Wool or plastic now. My mother was a spinner, spun any fibre she could get her hands on including hair from our poodle!

Thank you for such a clear explanation of different weights etc, I am going to try and set up a link from my blog but I am very new at this and it may not work!

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